I know that "elenchus" is often associated with Socrates and the Socratic method whereas "dialectic" is more associated with Plato. But what is their relationship? Is elenchus a part of dialectics? Or is elenchus basically the same as dialectics?

  • 2
    Elenchus is "destructive": a sort of refutation. Stating an assumption (hypothesis) and deriving absurd consequences in order to reject it. Jan 16 at 10:09
  • See Jakob Fink (editor), The Development of Dialectic from Plato to Aristotle (Cambridge UP). Jan 16 at 10:34
  • Consider that the etymology of "dialectic" is "dia-" for "two-of-" and "-lectic" from "lekta," which in Stoic logic were propositions (in modern parlance, the meanings of that-clauses). So "dialectic" would mean at base something like "two propositions," and as a process is the comparison and contrast of propositions as in Hegelian thesis-antithesis pairings (which linguistic imagery was inherited from Kant's discourse on antinomies as samples of "transcendental dialectic"). The elenchtic process, by comparison(!), would be specifically erotetic, of questions above/beyond just that-clauses. Jan 16 at 16:35
  • And see G.Vlastos, The Socratic Elenchus, into Socratic Studies (Cambridge UP, 1994), page 4: "Socratic elenchus is a search for moral truth by question-and-answer adversary argument in which a thesis is debated only if asserted as the answerer's own belief and is regarded as refuted only if its negation is deduced from his own beliefs." Jan 17 at 11:04

1 Answer 1


Both technical terms are not synonyms.

Quoting from Richard Robinson Plato’s earlier Dialectic:

The outstanding method in Plato’s earlier dialogues is the Socratic elenchus. ‘Elenchus’ in the wider sense means examining a person with regard to a statement he has made, by putting to him questions calling for further statements, in the hope that they will determine the meaning and the truth-value of his first statement. Most often the truth-value expected is falsehood; and so ‘elenchus’ in the narrower sense is a form of cross-examination or refutation. In this sense it is the most striking aspect of the behaviour of Socrates in Plato’s ealier dialogues. (p. 7)

The particular method [for attaining positive doctrine, not for rejecting it] which Plato discusses and recommends is called by him ‘the dialectical method’ […] (Rp 533C) or ‘the power of conversing’ […] (Rp. 511) or ‘the art concerning discussions’ […] (Phd. 90B) or the procedure of discussion’ […] (Sph. 227A). (p. 69)

Therefore ‘elenchus’ is used by Plato as a method of refutation in his early dialogues, while ‘dialectic’ is his method to obtain a positive doctrine in his middle and late dialogues.

From the dictionary: elenchus = argument of disproof, refutation; dialectic = from the verb "dialegesthai = to parley".

  • Let me see if I'm understanding this correctly, the basic difference is that 'elenchus' ends up with a negative result whereas 'dialectic' ends up with a positive result? Can it also be that elenchus is a part of the dialectic?
    – John Smith
    Jan 16 at 10:27
  • @JohnSmith Of course Plato's method of dialectic also refutes - in the sense of elenchus - certain claims discussed in the dialogues. But dialectic does not aim at refuting all statements and to end in aporia. The aim of dialectic is to obtain true doctrines.
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 16 at 10:32
  • So elenchus ends in aporia, dialectic ends in knowledge. Is that right?
    – John Smith
    Jan 16 at 10:34
  • @JohnSmith Concerning elenchus I agree. Concerning dialectic: E..g., Plato's dialogue Parmenides indicates some difficulties with Plato's earlier theory of forms. Hence Plato questioned and sometimes even revised some results from his earlier work - which is not unusual for sincere academic work :-)
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 16 at 10:45

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